From here, from there, or from nowhere: ‘I went to Taiwan to look for my roots and I only found those belonging to my hair’

Chenta Tsai Tseng — a Spanish musician of Taiwanese origin — turned insults into a stage name: Putochinomaricón. In their most ambitious project to date, they’re now working on deconstructing post-internet music

Chenta Tsai Tseng
Chenta Tsai Tseng, alias Putochinomaricón.Adri Cuerdo

“Where do you come from? Where do you come from, really? Where are your parents from?” These are some of the questions asked by Chenta Tsai Tseng — alias Putochinomaricón (motherfucking Chinese fag), a stage name the artist put together out of the insults they have been subjected to — at the closing of their new mixtape, Afong. They then sing the answer: “Well, the truth is that I’m not from here, nor am I from there.”

To stop feeling like a “perpetual foreigner,” Chenta explains, they travelled to Taiwan, the country where they were born. As a 10-month-old baby, Chenta’s family immigrated to Madrid. During the two-and-a-half years Chenta spent living in Taiwan as an adult, they had to deal with what they call “the romanticization of belonging.” “I went looking for my roots and I only found those belonging to my hair,” they joke. They felt like what their aunt called them: a banana. White on the inside, yellow on the outside. Or an ABC — an American-born Chinese — even though they weren’t born in the U.S. These terms are meant to refer to Asians who have lost the cultural link to their origins.

To transcribe a chat with Putochinomaricón means facing an infinite number of quotation marks and italics — the same ones that they’ve had to clear up throughout their 32 years of life. “[My identity] is more open than ever… I deconstruct more and more. As time goes on, I’m more aware of the double consciousness that W.E.B Du Bois wrote of. I live in that intersection between queerness, gender dissidence and my chinitud (Chineseness), which I used to understand from an extremely colonial perspective,” the artist reflects.

Putochinomaricón performing at Sónar Barcelona.
Putochinomaricón performing at Sónar Barcelona.Marta Pérez (EFE)

To this identity negotiation, Chenta adds the use of all the pronouns: the artist goes from referring to themselves in masculine to feminine and to non-binary, indistinctly. A fluency that contrasts with their late coming out of the closet to their parents — both language teachers — at the age of 27. “And not because it was a traditional family, but there was a lot of Confucian ideology behind it. Added to that was the issue of representation: I didn’t grow up seeing gender non-conforming East Asians. I didn’t know how to use my body. It was like buying an IKEA piece of furniture that came without an instruction manual. I reached a point of misrepresentation in which I did not see myself: neither in a relationship nor going out to party openly, nor wishing; above all wishing.”

The Internet soon became their refuge and escape point. Their first loves were purely online. “Imagine, I was marginalized, racialized, dissident I was far from everything and, nevertheless, the virtual connected me with everything. I spent the day in the forums of Chueca.com, of Tevi, in Chat.com, in Terra… But those relationships never reached the meatspace [real spaces, as opposed to cyberspace].”

That was where their digital and musical self, Putochinomaricón, was forged, appropriating the insult to deactivate it. An avatar who, at first, doubted whether they should jump into the physical world. “I wanted to be a virtual artist, so that no one would see me in real life. I was connecting all my identities at once, but I was still forging who I was and didn’t know what I wanted to expose in public and keep in private.” In parallel, the other Chenta had grown. The one who was admitted to London’s St. Martins to study men’s fashion design but stayed in Madrid, because their parents couldn’t afford to pay that money. The alumnne normative who got a 9′5 in their architecture TFG with a project inspired by Cedric Price and the Madrid studio n’UNDO in which they proposed not to build anything. “I wanted to present 14 empty sheets, but instead I presented the explanation of all that.” The one who disciplinedly went to the Royal Conservatory to study violin and then made good money playing at weddings and funerals. “I was a very stupid person, but I am a hard worker,” they say.

 Putochinomaricón presenting the ICON award for literature in 2019 to Paul B. Preciado.
Putochinomaricón presenting the ICON award for literature in 2019 to Paul B. Preciado.Gerard Estadella

The musical project they are presenting now is their most ambitious work to date. Four mixtapes under the title SMHD (Contained Art), where they tie the value of musical creation in the era of streaming to the acronym of the title: seconds, minutes, hours, days. They explain it better: “It’s based on Home economics, presented by architect Jack Self for the Venice Architecture Biennale a few years ago. In it, he located the value of places, from an Airbnb to a Starbucks sofa where we found Wi-Fi for a while, depending on the time we inhabited them (hours, days, months, years), questioning the whole issue of the crisis of contemporary housing, speculation and exploitation of the real estate market.” And how does all that translate to pop? “I make music as if it were architecture. If you look, there are fewer and fewer musicians and more content creators. Unfortunately, algorithms govern what kind of content we have to make if we want to keep being streamed. It seemed ironic to me to stop categorizing music by genre and start categorizing it by time scales. Playing to speculate on what the value of music will be based on its virality, because it no longer matters if your music is relevant, but for how long it is relevant.”

Chenta Tsai in 2019.
Chenta Tsai in 2019.Inma Flores

And to translate all this, they give a clear example: “You, as an artist, on Spotify do not charge if your song is streamed for more than 30 seconds. That’s why, if you pay attention, each time they make songs where they skip faster in style, so as not to lose your attention and skip to the next song. Music is increasingly fragmented. It happens a lot in K-pop, where each song goes from being 15 seconds reggaeton to a disco base of another 15 seconds and suddenly becomes dembow.” They also ironically deconstructs the identity of the hyperpop sound, tinting it at every moment of jungle, of digicore, of blog house, of glitch soul and even dressing it up as a digital couplet. “If I’m still dealing with my personal identity, imagine my musical style. That’s why I’m flexible, so call it what you want,” they joke.

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